A Soldier Comes Home, and a Battle with Mental Illness Begins
by Jason Jepson
I joined the Army with the best of intentions. It was 2003, and I was working as a pre-school teacher’s aide — a good job — but I wanted to do more. 9/11 was still a recent memory, so I decided that it was time to serve my country.
I went for basic and advance training in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Some soldiers don’t even get through training, as drill sergeants are constantly tearing you down and trying to bring you back up again. During my first couple of weeks in basic, I got smoked a lot. Smoked is when a drill sergeant yells at you to run up and down steps, or to do push up until you achieve muscle failure. Some soldiers who experience this either cry or just drop. I did neither. A drill sergeant got in my face and yelled, “Why don’t you cry?!” I didn’t have an answer. I remember one day when a drill sergeant told me I needed mental health services. I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought he was kidding.
After basic camp and my advanced training in Kentucky, I became a 19 Delta Cavalry Scout, and was sent to my first duty station at Fort Irwin, California, in the Mojave Desert. After a day of maneuvers and drills, our M113 tanks were parked in line just as the sun was going down. Three of my fellow soldiers called me over to where they were sitting. Suddenly, without any warning, they grabbed onto me and tried to pull me down to the ground. I kicked one of them off his feet. The other two were too much for me and, while one of the privates held me down, the other one pulled out a roll of duct tape. With the help of his two accomplices, he began to tape me so tightly I could not move. They taped my mouth shut. After they wrapped the tape around my body, I was left lying on the ground in a fetal position. Eventually, they removed the tape they had put over my mouth because I was having trouble breathing. Even then, I remember thinking, “This is it. This is how my life is going to end.”
The three soldiers carried me to the section sergeant and dropped me to the ground, like a trophy they had captured in the wild, and now they were presenting me to their leader, ready to be sacrificed. After the section sergeant surveyed the bounty and approved of their actions, the game was over. Another soldier cut the duct tape loose and I was released. Although this battle was over, it wasn’t the end for me. I walked away from that experience thinking I had been broken.
I was been accused of not following orders. I didn’t iron my uniform properly. I was ordered to shave twice a day. I “got wind” that some of the soldiers were smoking marijuana, and I thought a good soldier would report this to a higher officer. This was considered a terrible breach. Looking back now, I’m sure the other soldiers and my section sergeant did not see my concerns as helpful at all. They viewed me as a troublemaker. The guys who taped me that night in the desert were trying to break down this troublemaker.
This was not what my army experience was supposed to be like. In the eyes of my section sergeant, I couldn’t do anything right. But it wasn’t incompetence or troublemaking, it was mental illness. I believed my roommate had put glass in my coffee pot. I thought an old girlfriend was living in the desert, spreading rumors and gossip about me to my fellow soldiers. I could not control my thoughts, and I didn’t know what was real and what was not.
The taping incident began a downward spiral where my life became one of mental anguish. I was constantly on guard and suspicious of those around me. I felt paranoia and began experiencing delusions which affected my every action.
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On one particular day, I noticed the Mental Health building. At the time I thought I was using mind control so the other soldiers would leave me alone. On my lunch break I decided to visit the mental health building. I thought my “special powers” could be useful to them.
The counselors sat me down at a computer to answer some questions. I remember hallucinating that other soldiers were in the room with me. So I clicked “Yes” on the question about hallucinating. I heard a soldier say, “Yes you are hearing voices.” I actually started laughing, thinking I was fooling them with my special powers.
The diagnosis after the computer test was possible schizophrenia. They sent me to Balboa Navy Hospital in San Diego where I was given a medical diagnosis of schizo-typtal. I was given medicine; however I still thought I was fooling them and winning because I was leaving. The doctors at Balboa recommended that I receive an Honorable Discharge from the Army with a 100% Disability Rating: not what I had planned for my life.
I returned for a few days to Fort Irwin to be discharged. I didn’t think it was necessary to continue taking my medication because why should you take meds if you have special powers? My separation from the Army ended with my belongings being thrown into the back of my pick-up truck and a receiving an escort from the base by two MPs. I was on my own to drive across the country in my truck, hearing voices and experiencing delusions all the way.
After my short time in the military, I came home. Hate was a big belly of beer and chain smoking cigarettes. My negative emotions blinded me so much I could not see all the ways I was acting out. My parents, with whom I was living, helplessly watched as I allowed my mental illness to take over my life, creating chaos wherever I went.
My parents were taking group therapy class to deal with a mentally ill son who was not taking his medication. They were told not to give me any money so I could hit bottom so I would finally get help. I thought my parents could hear voices, too, and the voices were telling them not to give me money. This made me very angry because I needed money to put gas in my truck. I stole money from my mom’s purse to purchase cigarettes; I thought some teenagers had cut me off in traffic, so I stopped them and was beaten up. I thought I could make money by turning in criminals, so I would park in very dangerous parts of town, thinking I was undercover. I called the police numerous, time offering the assistance that I gained through my special powers. I even, at one point, threatened my dad’s life.
I decided to go to Roanoke, Virginia to see if I could live with my brother and his family. I got there before he came home from work. I was so tired from everything going inside my head that I slept on his side porch. My brother finally showed up, and I asked if I could live with him.
My brother told me, through my “special powers”, that if he let me live with his family, then the three witches would sabotage his oldest son at school so he couldn’t concentrate. Now I had to come up with another plan— I would go back to Richmond. However, a problem arose when I realized I only had a quarter tank of gas in my truck, and no money to get back to home. What would I do? An idea came to me, I could sell some CDs, but first I would need to steal some CDs. I went to a CD store that sold new CDs. I decided to pick CDs I didn’t like such as Korn, and Limp Bizkit.
I could hear Jesus’ voice.
“Jason, what are you doing?”
“I don’t feel like talking to you, Jesus,” I said, through my telepathy.
I cruised through the aisles until I had a fist full of CDs.
At the entrance and exit doors, there were two plastic alarm systems. A person who hadn’t had the sensor scanned by a sales clerk at check-out would cause the alarm to go off when he tried to exit without paying. I went running with my fist full of CDs over my head. The alarm didn’t go off. I kept running as fast as I could to my truck.
“That was awesome!” I heard my brother’s voice exclaim inside my head.
Luckily I had just enough gas to get to the used CD store that buys CDs. Suddenly I realized the new CDs still had these plastic protectors around them. I had sold my knife so how can I get them open?
The previous owner of my truck had a small toolbox in the glove compartment. In the toolbox there were Alan wrenches. The Alan wrenches could fit in the plastic covering and opened them up. I put the plastic coverings in the floor of the passenger seat, and hoped I would get enough money to go home or what I thought was home, Richmond, Virginia.
I put the brand new CDs on the counter with the clear wrapping still on them.
“Would you like to sell these?” the kid on the other side of the counter asked. I was nervously sweating.
“Yes,” I answered. The kid liked a few of the titles.
“I might take this for myself,” he said.
When I was asked if I wanted cash or a store credit, I answered, “Cash.” It wasn’t enough for a full tank a gas, but it was enough to get me home.
I heard my brother say, “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” I said aloud. The kid at the store stared at me.
I returned to Richmond in the early evening. I don’t think my parents were surprised to see me. They welcomed me with hugs, and my mom fixed dinner me, and then went upstairs, leaving me alone with Dad. I heard the phone ring and I guessed she had answered it.
I had just finished eating dinner when she handed me the phone. I was surprised to find out it was the police on the other end. The male voice told me to go outside with my hands up. I guess I was tired of fighting whatever it was I was dealing with. The policeman then told me to put my hands on my head and to get on my knees.
It was raining and I remember the water running down the drive way. My knees were soaked. I still didn’t run or fight the police. I ended it up in a psychiatric hospital. This was not the end, by any means.
If the police hadn’t shown up that evening, I don’t think I would be here today. I would have continued my journey of self-destruction, and eventually I would have been killed through my poor judgment and delusions or I would have ended up in jail. When the police put me in hand cuffs, oddly, I felt relief for the first time in many months. I surrendered to the beast inside me and admitted that I needed help. I had become a danger to myself and others. It was the beginning of the end of chaos.
I have nothing bad to say about the police who came to my rescue. They had received special training to deal with someone in my situation, and they treated me very respectfully. Instead of complaints or grievances, I wish I could remember their names so I could thank them for saving me from myself.
It has been several years now since those feelings of bitterness and hate towards the Army consumed me. Time can be an amazing healer. I now understand that my fellow soldiers at that time did not know how to handle an individual with a mental illness and who was out of control. I forgive them. I am proud of my willingness to serve, and I have no regrets about that time in my life. I have chosen to not dwell on the losses, but to live my life the best I can. Part of that purpose is to continue to shed light on mental illness through my writing of first person accounts and to fight the stigma that surrounds mental illness and prevents people from getting the help they need.
A bad day, and I still have them, is when I have a few voices going along in my head. It humbles me to say I try to find the triggers. I ask myself did I eat, did I get enough sleep, do I need to adjust my medication? Sometimes exercise helps, or writing helps.
I feel the heavy weight of stress when I am driving in traffic or if it is raining hard outside. I also feel anxieties in large crowds. I sometimes say a little prayer and then keep moving forward.
When I am hurting the kindest thing I can do for myself is making sure I eat a good dinner, buying ice cream, or a milk shake. Also listening to soul music, or just writing it out. No matter how bad it gets, I figure everyday above ground is a good day.
I have been very fortunate to use my writing to help others who are in similar situations as me. Those who know me well know that I feel good when my writing helps someone who is a mental health consumer or a mental health advocate. Being able to impact someone’s life in a positive manner is very rewarding to me. I have received emails from doctors around the world who have found my first person accounts helpful in working with their patients.
I am personally proud when I can help the other vets at the veteran’s hospital where I receive mental health services. By simply asking how they are doing, or having a mental health professional share one of my articles from Schizophrenia Bulletin in group therapy is so rewarding. I enjoy seeing their smiles. I feel empowered when I can empathize with someone with the same issues, especially another veteran. I often tell them to go to the NAMI website for more help.
Through my illness and my recovery, I have learned that fear is our worst enemy. We have to be honest with ourselves and others about what we don’t know, and about what scares us the most; even if that’s ourselves. We can all do our part by sharing when we feel it is necessary. Writing and talking out loud will help to get rid of the stigma.